Debunking Senator Al Franken On Google, The Internet & Privacy

I liked Al Franken as a comedian. I liked the idea of him becoming a US Senator. I definitely like the idea that he wants to defend Americans from potential privacy problems. But I don’t like that he sounds like an uneducated senator of old. Case in point: his recent speech to the American Bar Association attacking Google and raising worries about internet privacy. Let’s do some debunking.

Franken gave a speech last night to the American Bar Association’s anti-trust section, The Verge reports. The also have a copy of his speech here. I’ll go through the key parts pertaining to internet privacy, where Google plays the role as chief threat, with Facebook making some cameos.

Gmail Hoarding

Franken said:

But if you use Gmail – as I do – Google has a copy of every single email you’ve written on that service – as well as your friends’ replies.

True, unless you trash them. It’s not like Google prevents you from doing this.

Not mentioned is that if you use mail from Yahoo or Microsoft, they have a copy of every single email you have, unless you delete those, too. Was it too hard to squeeze the names of two more companies into that sound bite?

By the way, keeping all our email used to be a feature, Senator Franken. When Google launched Gmail with seemingly infinite space, the idea was that people shouldn’t have to trash all their email. After all, you might want to find something from the past.

Yahoo and Microsoft quickly moved to increase the space they allowed. In fact, checking just now, it’s hard to find what the limits are with Yahoo and Hotmail. That seems to be because they don’t really try to limit you.

Bottom line: it’s not a Google thing, so don’t talk about it as if it is.

Your Facebook Face Fingerprint

Franken said:

If you use Facebook – as I do – Facebook in all likelihood has a unique digital file of your face, one that can be as accurate as a fingerprint and that can be used to identify you in a photo of a large crowd.

So does my gym. So does Disneyland, from my annual pass. So does Costco. If we’re going to have rules about our images, can we apply those to the real world, too? Or not make them seem like they’re only a worry with tech companies?

Tracking Your Movements

Franken said:

And if you use a cell phone – as I do – your wireless carrier likely has records about your physical movements going back months, if not years.

Bless you. I talked about this as a concern in 2010, and glad you’re considering it:

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Your carrier does have these records. If you want to view those, or delete those, unlike the situation with Facebook or Google or Foursquare, good luck. But the carriers rarely get singled out for this. Again, it was nice to see you mention this.

Impeach Google!

Franken said:

And you can’t impeach Google if it breaks its “Don’t be evil” campaign pledge.

Nice sound bite. In reality, you can. You can stop using them. If they violate what’s been promised in their policies, you can sue them. Well, a lawyer will do a class action suit and make a lot of money. Consumers will get a $1 coupon off AdWords.

Franken continued:

What we’re seeing is that, just like Americans’ pocketbooks and access to information, their right to privacy can be a casualty of anti-competitive practices.

Here’s an example: Google’s recent changes to its privacy policy.

Now, Google isn’t just Google, the search engine. There’s Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube. And Google has always tracked your use of these services.

That was the basic deal. You got to use these amazing, innovative, helpful services – and, unless you knew where to find that opt-out link, Google got to use your use of these  services to better target ads to you.

Where to begin? Senator Franken, you know that when I go to your own campaign web site, you “track” my use of your services? You do. Go check your web server logs. There will be a record of my IP address, probably a cookie you assigned to me, and you’ll know all the pages I’ve viewed.

Let’s have a reality check on tracking. All types of tracking happens on the interwebtubes, for all types of reasons.

Yes, You Can Use Google To Get Directions Fairly Anonymously

Meanwhile, that opt-out link you’re worried about? Do you really know what are you talking about?

I mean, you can use Google Maps without being logged into Google. Yep, it’s going to do some fairly anonymous tracking of your visit there. Potentially, it can use that visit to target you across the web, just like Yahoo, Microsoft and many other companies do.

And yes, that opt-out link is hard to find. But it’s not related to the privacy policy change. That tracking and targeting happens independent of your Google Account. To understand more, and I hope you do, please read this:

The Deal Changers

Franken said:

Over time, though, the deal changed. In September 2010, Google told people it might use data from the content of your Gmail messages to better target the ads you’d see on other Google sites. So, if you emailed your friend in Minneapolis to tell him you were coming to visit next weekend, you might see an ad for a hotel in Minneapolis next time you went to Google Maps.

And this was bad because? But assuming you really didn’t like it — log out. Assuming you really, really didn’t like it, go use another service.

Franken said:

And this month, the deal changed again. Google now says it will share user data from any Google site with any other Google site. Every word you put in an email, every video you look for and at on YouTube, everywhere you explore on Google Maps, and everything you Google – it can all be used to help Google target ads to you on any of its sites.

Google actually said it “may” share, not that it “will” share. It also said that while it may do this to better target ads, it might also do it to make your use of its products better.

You know, sharing in the same way that Facebook and Microsoft both have privacy policies that allow them to share information between services? But no one gets upset about that, because for them, it was the status quo. For Google, it’s a campaign talking point.

If you’re upset about that sharing, be upset with all the tech companies. Don’t talk just about Google changing the deal. Talk about all the companies having this issue.

You Can Leave Google, Yes, You Can

Franken said:

But here’s where privacy becomes an antitrust issue.

If you don’t want your search results shared with other Google sites – if you don’t want some kind of super-profile being created for you based on everything you search, every site you surf, and every video you watch on YouTube – you will have to find a search engine that’s comparable to Google. Not easy.

Seriously, Senator Franken, who is writing this stuff for you? It’s super easy.

For one, go use Bing. It’s a totally great search engine.

Don’t like Bing? Go use Blekko. They’ve got some relevancy hurdles to climb, but you can use them.

Don’t like Blekko? Go use Duck Duck Go, which uses Bing, Blekko and other services and touts being a private search engine. Need more options? See our private searching list.

Or hey, don’t use Google when you’re logged in. That’s pretty easy, too. No one forces you to sign-up for that Google Account that’s linked to that privacy policy you’re so worried about, to do a search on Google. If you’re really, really paranoid, search on Google using the private browsing features in Internet Explorer or Firefox. Chrome has one, too, but given you’re worried about Google, you probably won’t want to use that.

Why Not Pay For Your Email?

Franken said:

If you want a free email service that doesn’t use your words to target ads to you, you’ll have to figure out how to port years and years of Gmail messages somewhere else, which is about as easy as developing your own free email service.

Or you could go sign-up for Hotmail, which as I look at it at the moment, really wants me to import all my Gmail messages into it. That’s pretty easy.

In your speech, you’ve got a great sound bite: “You are not their client. You are their product.” So why not pay $50 per year to be the client and turn off the ads? I’m pretty sure the US Constitution doesn’t require people to be entitled to free email.

By the way, that client/product quote sounds familiar. Kind of like, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” from Andrew Lewis in 2010. I’m not saying you’re plagiarising him (I’m really not). He’s probably not even the first to have said it. Just pointing it out, in case you suddenly get turned into the author of this concept by some.

You Can Leave Facebook


You might not like that Facebook shares your political opinions with Politico, but are you really going to delete all the photos, all the posts, all the connections – the presence you’ve spent years establishing on the world’s dominant social network?

Yeah, if I’m really upset, I will. Or I’ll move on. You’ve heard of MySpace? Of Friendster? Or, um, Orkut? Facebook isn’t guaranteed to be the dominant social network (though I’ll admit, it’s got pretty good roots down now).

How About Real World Privacy?


The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy.

Damn straight. Why, just the other day I was thinking about this company that has 20 years of my purchases on file, and how do I get all that deleted? Oh, wait, that was my credit card company. I don’t think I can.

Well, there’s this other company that knows all the things I’ve bought. How do I get all that deleted? Oh, wait, that was my grocery store. Where’s the dashboard for deleting purchases made with my loyalty card again?

At least Target can tell me if I’m pregnant, based on what it tracks about me. It’s not a technology company, so maybe you don’t think it falls under the new Senate subcommittee that you chair, Privacy, Technology & The Law.

But it should. Even if Target is tracking me in real stores, shouldn’t I have as much protection as you want me to have when I use the virtual stores of Google and Facebook?

Phew, But No Need To Ring Alarm Bells Yet

Franken said:

It isn’t time for alarm bells just yet. There are still some lines Google and Facebook aren’t planning to cross. Yet. Facebook isn’t about to sell lists of your friends to the highest bidder. And I’m pretty sure Google knows that, if it published everyone’s search history online, there would be some meaningful blowback.

Ya think?

But I mean, Facebook kind of does sell my friends. I can export all of them out to Yahoo and Bing, because Facebook and Yahoo and Bing all have deals. I can’t export them to Google, because, you know, they aren’t friends. Would you call that selling to the highest bidder?

When I go over to search on Bing, by default, all my Facebook friends are being used to personalize my search results. Oh, I can opt-out, but you know how hard that is. Since that’s part of a Bing-Facebook deal, is that a line that’s crossed?

How About Thoughtful Action, Not Loud Noises?

Franken said:

But wouldn’t we feel a lot more comfortable about that if we knew that market forces would act to stop such an egregious abuse of our privacy? And shouldn’t we be concerned that, as these companies that trade in your personal information keep getting bigger and bigger, they become less and less accountable?

No, I think we’d feel a lot more comfortable if our representatives crafted well considered laws to protect our privacy from companies on and off the internet.

And Senator Franken, let me end with this. It’s really hard to take the paranoia you seem to have over Google seriously when you’re also pitching small businesses to use Google:

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Wait, did I perhaps not take a nuanced view there, not see that perhaps things aren’t all in black-and-white? If so, forgive me. I was just reading this rousing speech, and I guess I got carried away.

Senator Franken, your heart seems to be in the right place. Please do fight on the side of the consumers from big companies, because we need you in our corner. But be educated about it.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Facebook | Facebook: Legal | Features & Analysis | Google: Privacy | Legal: Privacy | Top News


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Winooski

    Well-reasoned all around. I think Senator Franken’s right to be concerned in the larger picture, especially as these major Internet companies find their way into more of our online activity and transition from nice-to-have-but-optional services to can’t-do-without utilities, but he’s certainly mistaken to single out Google when there are lots of competing behemoths behaving similarly.

    I also appreciate your calling out less-sexy industries that record crucial consumer information (e.g., credit card companies, grocery companies) yet don’t provide anything close to the same level of transparency as the major search engine and social media companies. Senator Franken would do well to train his gaze on those older experts in consumer surveillance.

  • For Pitch

    Shouldn’t you change your name to Danny Shilligan?

  • Barbara

    As a citizen of MN I believe Senator Franken seeks expert dialog on this important topic while he balances a myriad of perspectives as a policy maker. I admire your internet expertise and focused point of view here. ( like Sullivan v. Scoble on GG :)

    It appears Google was used as a consistent illustration in the speech, providing a cohesive thread relevant to the audience of antitrust lawyers, it was not necessarily framed for the public at large, or as a statement on the tech industry spectrum. The message is clear in the opening lines of the speech.

    More than a century ago – with manufacturing conglomerates engaged in widespread anti-competitive behavior, hundreds of short-line railroads consolidating into omnipotent transport concerns, and Standard Oil building a monopoly – America decided it was time to take action.

    As Senator John Sherman said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessities of life.”

    I’m illustrating an analogy for the internet; where rails have been built anywhere, by anyone, with interoperability across tracks. Within personal and interconnected trains of content and services, there are always individual boxcars you could hop on and off anonymously. People pass freely through independent depots of access, at the same time passenger movements are often tracked across cars along the way. Search has been a valuable conductor of commerce across platforms. 

    In recent years Facebook has built a bullet train of immense scale offering the glimmer of secure service within a self contained app environment. Data driven efficiency speeds passengers across the internet on proprietary tracks with locked down doors. Access points are protected, at the same time transfers across the internet are tracked, while exchanges among passengers have become highly monitored. The terms of service are omnipotent.

    With an eye on the value of this alternative platform, Google is scaling up to build a Speed Train of their own. To build on the interest in their own self contained data cargo, customer privacy agreements have been resigned to cattle cars for data driven markets. 

    Times are quickly changing… to Franken’s point. “It’s a lot easier to preserve competition than it is to restore it once it’s been destroyed.”

  • Lance Long

    Re: building a facial recognition finger print to track you…  ”So does my gym.”

    Sorry, what now?

    There is a big leap from using a picture for a human to identify the holder to having that picture indexed for tracking in content you may not even be aware of.

  • Danny Sullivan

    My gym has my picture linked to my fingerprint, so that when I check in, they can tell who I am and have a match to my face. I don’t recall any US Senators worrying that maybe private companies should be regulated on doing this type of thing. And maybe they should, because who knows what’s going to happen with those two bits of data. I really don’t know. That’s the bigger point here. We don’t need scapegoating one or two big internet companies. We need solid privacy protections overall.

  • zato

    Google is an advertising enabler. Their goal is to mine the activity of the internet and build profiles/dossiers on everyone. That data is then analized by algorithms to create a virtual model of each person. Eventually Google will be able to accurately estimate the DNA of any individual, and create a GoogleBot version them, to replace the original, as they have done in the case of Danny Sullivan. 

  • jackl421

    When you can’t get insurance or a job or are under surveillance by some malevolent government agency that has data on your every move, purchase or whatever, this may be a problem.  As far as we know, this kind of data is already being marketed to data aggregators like Lexis-Nexis.  If you think credit scores and the like are nefarious, then “free” email from Google or the silly social networking sites like Facebook are a lot more sinister.

    Like what Senator Franken is doing and think your dismissive attitude is not called for.  By the way, my primary email server is a paid service, but modestly priced.  Gmail and Gmail+ are my “throwaway” accounts and not used for anything serious.  Therefore, I don’t mind the ads and datamining, but agree that “free” is OK as long as you have no expectations of quality, privacy or good customer service because you are not the “customer” you are the “product”.

    As in everything, you get what you pay for.

  • fjpoblam

    Danny, while your piece may be “well reasoned”, I have a few gripes. Take’em or leave’em. At least, enjoy.

    Your debunking starts with “I liked Al Franken as a comedian.” This subtle ad hominem does little to enhance your arguments. 

    An argument you use often is of the ilk that everybody else does it, so it should be okay if Google does it. E.g., “Not mentioned is that if you use mail from Yahoo or Microsoft, they have a copy of every single email you have, unless you delete those, too. Was it too hard to squeeze the names of two more companies into that sound bite?” Not relevant. Franken was griping about Google practices, not everybody else; and just because everybody else does something inappropriate, doesn’t necessarily make it proper.

    You: “You can stop using them.” I love (or actually despise) this one. It’s Google’s “another service is just a click away.” In other words, “Like it or lump it.” I don’t know, really, how to rebut your argument. America, love it or leave it. Earth, love it or leave it. I rebut it only by saying, you’re trying to deny anyone the right to gripe about Google services. I’d say in this case, if you don’t like such gripes, you needn’t listen. “The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.”(Tommy Smothers)

    You: “Senator Franken, you know that when I go to your own campaign web site, you “track” my use of your services? You do.” Yep, View Source, Danny. Some of the tracking is Google, Danny. If you don’t like being tracked, be sure to logoff Google! 

    You: “Let’s have a reality check.” As you may have seen in many discussions on webmasterworld, the reality is that Google “owns” searchability, and SEO involves playing up to Google. Just as diligent web design involves playing up to widely-used Internet Explorer even though a web designer may despise Internet Explorer. So you might not be surprised that Franken’s site tracks you.

    You: “Google actually said it ‘may’ share, not that it ‘will’ share.” [Nor did Google say that it “won’t” share, FWIW.] “It also said that …it might also do it to make your use of its products better.” [What the heck does “make your use of its products better” mean? Pretty danged vague, if you ask me. Better how and for whom?]

    You: “By the way, that client/product quote sounds familiar. Kind of like, ‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’ from Andrew Lewis in 2010. I’m not saying you’re plagiarising him (I’m really not). He’s probably not even the first to have said it. Just pointing it out, in case you suddenly get turned into the author of this concept by some.” [Implicit ad hominem? Just pointing it out. But at any rate, both are correct. Google services plus a pack of cigarettes are worth about the same as a pack of cigarettes.]

    Danny, your heart seems to be in the right place. Please do fight on the side of Google, because they need you in their corner. But be fair about it.

  • Mariusz

    Since you are an expert on Google you were able to see through the demagoguery of Al Franken on this topic.  What you fail to realize is that he is like that on other topics much more important than Google.  Finally it might give people a pause before they blindly support a comedian.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I meant nothing negative saying Franken was a comedian. He was an incredibly intelligent comedian, as many great comedians are. It’s one reason I liked the idea of him becoming a US Senator.
    My argument is absolutely not “everyone else does it.” Rather, it’s that since everyone else does it, let’s not single out one company as a scapegoat but instead solve the systemic problem.
    It’s also true that if you don’t want to use Google, you don’t have to. I’m sorry, but Franken simple sounds ignorant when he gives the impression you somehow are stuck with Google for email. We need him to be smarter than that, or sound smarter than that.
    I’m not surprised Franken tracks me. As I explained in another comment, it’s not that tracking altogether is bad. It’s what is being tracked, how it’s being tracked and your control over it. That’s why I dislike “tracking” just being tossed out as some type of illicit activity.
    The reference was about Lewis quoting in terms of being the product sold again wasn’t some type of slam against Franken but rather simple to point out that that concept isn’t something fresh that hasn’t been out there before. Very likely, Franken will end up popularizing that. But I thought it would be nice to credit someone else.
    Look, I like Franken. He seems a smart, savvy and genuine person. That’s why reading a speech like that made me scratch my head. I’m looking for a more nuanced and educated approach to the real issues we have with privacy. I hope we get that from him.

  • The Shambolic Skeptic

    Franken has become a typical political demagogue on this. Just making cheap political points for the great unwashed. To hell with the facts, Al, as long as it leads to more votes.

    Sheesh … he’s gone bad like those he ran against. Part of the problem now.

  • Pierre Gardin

    “Cattle cars”, you’ve jumped the shark on this one.

  • Jeff Downer Indianapolis IN

    I gotta say that I’ve never confused Al Franken with a rocket scientist.

  • Chris Ward

    Your a little hard on Al, but I agree with much of.  However, your point about other search engine’s such as Bing… Bing just steals Google’s results, so I would hardly call them better, or different.   

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